music: digitization and the Internet changed music, the Web didn’t

Videos-about-music maker Rick Beato made a stimulating video of “TOP 20 Inventions that CHANGED Music.” It’s entertaining and a pretty good list.


He left out the underlying technique of digitization. Without it, inventions he mentioned like CDs, PC music, Napster, and digital audio workstations, would all be impossible. Our computer devices would only be playing MIDI files – the bleeps and blurps of the soundtrack of the first DOOM videogame and early Nokia ringtones. Wikipedia says the technique of Pulse Code Modulation was invented in 1937! Then we had to wait decades for storage to become cheap and fast enough, and for Analog-to-Digital Converters (and their inverse, DACs) to increase in bit rate and decrease in cost, before digitized sound expanded from AT&T compressing voice calls for long-distance transmission to a storage format for music.

The Internet affected music, not the Web

Some people argued the list should have included the Web, because it made the Internet usable. I said no:

The web didn’t change music the way these other inventions did. Napster and P2P sharing like Bittorrent don’t use HTML or HTTP, they’re different protocols on the Internet. Before them people traded music files over other Internet protocols like USENET news groups and FTP file servers, and buying songs with the iTunes program came before widespread downloading of them from web stores. Sir Tim is my hero for solving hyperlinked presentation of remote information, but not for affecting music.

I would love it if the web had changed music more! Imagine if early multimedia CD-ROMs had successfully migrated to the web. You’d go to the artist’s web site for a new release or to a music fan like Rick Beato’s web site for a presentation of 20 great bass lines, and the pictures and text and video about the music would be integrated with a music player that plays the relevant songs (and ensures the musicians get paid). Instead all you get an audio file with the track name and an album thumbnail 🙁, or you watch a linear video. You don’t even get bloody liner notes until someone separately puts them on the web in a video description or Discogs entry.

Music as a computer file blew my fragile little mind.

Returning to digitization, turning music into files and then streams was an evolutionary process. I worked at a company that made multimedia chips (back in the days when you needed an add-on card to play PC games on Windows 3.0 and Windows 95), and we bought a $3,000 industrial CD player and installed special Windows drivers to access the 1s and 0s on a CD to turn a Pink Floyd album track into a Windows .WAV file. It was a bit-perfect copy of the song from the CD, perhaps one of the earliest to exist outside of a recording studio and years before “ripping a CD” became commonplace. It took up 1/5 of a hard drive! (Which is why games like DOOM used MIDI files for soundtracks, and sound files were only for short sound effects.) I knew turning a song into a computer file "PF_SORRO.WAV" was insanely significant and was going to change music, but I wasn’t sure how.

While writing this I learned that CDs (first prototyped in 1979) predated the first digitally recorded album, supposedly Ry Cooder’s Bop Till You Drop (1983). Again, storage was key. I think the music on early CDs were transferred from the analog masters to digital audio tapes or digital signals on videotape (!), and the CD stampers were burned from these. It was years before each track in a recording could be stored on a hard drive. Steely Dan’s great engineer Roger Nichols has interesting recollections of the early years of digital recording.

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